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Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)


Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) [1966] which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

Jack Bilbo: “A Modernist Fighter for Humanity” (1948)

3 May
Jack Bilbo's One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s autobiography, very lavishly published by his own imprint, The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, in 1948, carries a subtitle that sums up the man and his life: “Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo: The first forty years of the complete and intimate life-story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity”. As self declarations go this takes some beating, and the autobiography itself (the resemblance of much of which to adventure fiction is probably not entirely coincidental) is nothing if not readable. Whether all or even much of it is true is a question that crops up continually while you read it, but even if only a small fraction of its material closely matches what might be called an authentic account of the real Jack Bilbo’s life and times – Jack Bilbo being, anyway, a persona that had been created by Jack Bilbo himself in order to escape his original identity as a German Jew born Hugo Cyrill Kulp Baruch in 1907, the son of the owner of a successful theatrical props and costumes empire in Berlin – you’d still have to admit that the man led a pretty remarkable existence.

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

The 1948 autobiography certainly has its share of exaggerations, but the parts that are actually documented seem extraordinary enough. Bilbo travelled a lot, was involved with anti-fascist organisations through the 1930s, ran a bar in Sitges, Spain, aiding Republicans during the Civil War, and wound up in charge of one of the few Modern Art Galleries to remain active in war-time London, where he gave Kurt Schwitters his most comprehensive and significant exhibition in England, much of which was back on view in Tate’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition during 2013. Whether, between these escapades, he was also touring China with revolutionaries, working with smugglers in Mallorca, found his way to his father’s house in a ‘White’ district of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising with an escort of Red Army soldiers, whose lives he’d saved, got involved in an assassination attempt, met Sigmund Freud after a suicide attempt at the age of 18, or lost his virginity to and very nearly married a 21 year-old mixed race woman in the American South while en route to Hollywood when he was only 14 (but passing as 19 to get work on the ships that took him to America in the first place) is all possibly (or possibly not) more questionable.

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

At times, Jack Bilbo’s memoir reads more like Hemingway on steroids than any kind of factual account (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack London, his admiration for whose writings was, by his own account, the source of the ‘Jack’ in ‘Jack Bilbo’). But Bilbo himself is disarmingly open about his own tendency to distort the record when it suits him. During the 1930s, finding himself back in Berlin from America and desperate for money, he wrote a pulp crime book that his memoir explains was initially intended as a money-making fiction (he called it I Carried a Gun For Al Capone) but found it more marketable when chance misunderstandings with a German newspaper led to its serialisation as a factual account, which was later picked up by a British publisher. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bilbo seems to have shrugged and played the part required of him, acting out the role of an ex-gangster for anyone who fancied listening. A notable raconteur and charismatic storyteller, his 1946 collection of short stories, published under the deliberately double-edged title Out Of My Mind, apparently resulted from nights he put on at his gallery in London where guests listened to Bilbo’s grisly, strange and unlikely tales and had to guess which were true, which false, and which neither, because even Bilbo himself wasn’t entirely sure.

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

He seems, in short, to have treated his own life as a fiction, to be rewritten as he went along on whatever terms he liked: a kind of archetypal Modernist position if ever there was one. You could say that he often seems to have operated as a paradoxically honest confidence trickster, with interesting results. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in art, or any training in it, before his arrival in London in 1939, but at some point after that arrival he appears to have decided to become an artist, working furiously to create a series of 34 canvases, which he then touted around galleries. According to his memoir, having been laughed at and refused an exhibition everywhere, he simply set up his own: The Modern Art Gallery, which eventually settled at 24 Charles II Street. His German nationality led to a period of internment, where he met many other Jewish and Leftist intellectuals, collectors and artists forced to flee the Nazi regime, including Kurt Schwitters, so on his eventual release found he had a ready-made stable of contacts with internationally important figures who were not only available but in need of his help to continue their own work. By 1942 he was a genuine artist, curator and dealer, showing Picasso at his own gallery and his own curious works with David Zwemmer, among others. By 1944 he was a feature on Pathé newsreels.

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Were his paintings good? Not by most standard measures, for which Bilbo himself had nothing but contempt anyway, but they have something that is hard to dismiss, at least at their best (he is not, shall we say, a very consistent painter). An uncensored strangeness, an ahead-of-its-time absurdist black humour, a makeshift aesthetic that transcends Bilbo’s own technical limitations more often than it plausibly should, all allied with an imagination that paints whatever passes through it, disregarding most conventional criteria of taste and aesthetics. It’s no wonder that he struck up a quick rapport with Schwitters. Perhaps the best way to think about Bilbo’s own artworks is as those of a ‘bad’ painter with an inconsistent, largely accidental originality, but an originality nonetheless. He’s not a deliberate ‘bad’ painter like Picabia, not an innocent like Henri Rousseau, and clearly not an ‘outsider artist’ in any meaningful sense either. It turns out that he may have been weirdly, if subliminally, influential, too: many of his paintings look disconcertingly current, with a sensibility more common in 2014 than in the 1940s. If so, this must have been mediated in indirect ways. For example: some of Bilbo’s paintings (and certainly the concrete garden sculptures he made in Weybridge after 1945, which are no longer extant) seem to have been reference points for Tony Hancock and his writers when they devised their feature-length art world satire The Rebel (1960).

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

More intriguingly, especially from the perspective of the Robert Holcombe project, Jack Bilbo’s memoir has a physical but slightly phantom presence in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk! series of collages, projected at the ICA in 1952 and later made into a series of prints at the time of Paolozzi’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971 (it also transpires that the story of the Bunk! collages may itself be as fabricated as anything in Bilbo’s memoir, but that’s another story). For whatever reason, the image that contains the Bunk! of the Bunk! series is properly known by one of Bilbo’s titles, built as it is on the page containing Evadne In Green Dimension (1945) as a tipped-in colour plate in the 1948 autobiography. That Bilbo was also present in London and Weybridge until 1949, the year after Holcombe arrived at the Slade (where he also, fictionally, met Eduardo Paolozzi) therefore positions Hugo Baruch, aka Jack Bilbo himself, a man deeply enamoured of self-fictionalisation, at the epicentre of Holcombe’s own formative fictional milieu, which opens up some interesting possibilities. Besides, Bilbo retains his own presence, his estate now represented by England & Co gallery, with whom the artist Aaron Angell recently collaborated to put his own work alongside some of Bilbo’s drawings. He has also made several cameo appearances in the convoluted narrative of Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden‘s ongoing series of noir-inspired historical drawings. In the face of all this, if Bilbo was a fantasist, as seems at least partly the case, he was a fantasist with an uncanny knack of bringing his fabrications into reality.

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

All images are scanned from the pages of Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo (The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, London, 1948). The book is currently out of print.

Robert Holcombe: Folklore, Ritual and the Modern Interior (1955 – 1975)

13 Feb
Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Exhibition opens at Xero, Kline & Coma, 258 Hackney Road, London E2 from 7 – 9pm on Thursday February 13th, then runs for four weeks, from 15 Feb to 9 March (gallery opening times are Sat/Sun 12 – 6pm). 

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [RH: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi (1984)]

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [RH: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art between 1948 and 1951 and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in the city of Leeds. His early, if oblique, involvement with the Independent Group continued into the 1980s, and he maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared.

Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was generally usual at the time. The consumerist excesses of the Immersions series (1970 – 71), the inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors elsewhere, alongside the many disturbances of ordinary spaces that colour the whole body of work, all suggest an artist with a satirical as well as unsettling and surreal take on the emerging society and politics of his age.

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Keren Goldberg’s comments on this exhibition in Art Review can be found here.

Robert Holcombe Exhibition Guide (Syson, 2013)

22 Dec

The Family Bible & Other Fables: Works from the Robert Holcombe Collection (1948 – 1978) is a fictional retrospective exhibition, offering a selection of around 70 works from the three decades of collage held by the Robert Holcombe archive. It’s on display at Syson Gallery and Antenna until January 31, 2014 (the gallery reopens on January 8th after the Christmas break).

The Modernists - Diplodocus (1967)

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1984]

“The question of identity is fascinating. I evade myself. I use only found materials on which I leave no obvious mark and I reconfigure them under an identity that is not mine. But each work generates a fingerprint, anonymous to the casual glance, yet so revealing to one prepared to enter that very particular labyrinth that no escape from identification seems possible without gloves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1973]

1964 programme

ROOM ONE (Timeline, 1948 – 1978):

Unidentified Artist: French etching showing a murderous priest in a storm, 1825.

The origins of this image, or its path into Holcombe’s family, are not known, but Holcombe’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, notes that it was hung in his childhood bedroom, and he took it with him when he left home to study at the Slade in 1948. Clearly, something in this mysterious and violent scene – a portrait of a priest murdering a woman with an axe in an Gothic landscape racked by lightning – resonated with Holcombe, and its influence, both in specifics (the cut tree in its disjointedly theatrical space) and broader terms (its generally unsettling atmosphere and ambiguous message) can be seen in much of Holcombe’s own work. Booth acquired the picture on Holcombe’s death, and notes that by 2003 he would have had it close for pretty much the entirety of his eighty years.

Ozymandias (1948)

This small collage is one of only a handful of works to have survived from Holcombe’s early years. This image, derived from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of 1818, was made and framed the summer before he left Leeds to begin his studies at the Slade.

Corset (1951)
Revolt (1951)

An unrelated pair of early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued. Letters of the time suggest that, by 1951, he had developed a particular interest in the possibilities of colour screen-printing and was concerned with questions of printing as an element in graphic and interior design. It has been suggested that he was already moving away from fine art as a focal point of his interests by his second year at college, which – if true – would be consistent with his decision to pursue a very different career path to his contemporaries after 1955.

A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel (1952)

A small work, explicitly indebted to Max Ernst and the conventions of Surrealist collage (see also: Corset and The Reading Room of 1951: a sly nod to Ernst’s Loplop also appears in The Kiss, made during  1957). A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel  is significant in bringing together the biological, religious and pop-cultural (here, specifically cinematic) elements that would define much of the work that followed. The atmosphere here is also notably similar to that seen in the anonymous 1825 print he had brought with him to London.

Telekinesis I & II: The Playground (c.1952 – 56?)

It is difficult to date this unsigned work in two parts with any certainty, but stylistically it closely resembles the work he was beginning to make in the early 1950s, just prior to and following his return to Leeds in 1955. Many works like this were produced, initially as part of a series of fabricated images appearing to show evidence of Telekinetic phenomena, and this group later appears to evolve into (and to a large extent merge with) the often similarly-toned and themed Folklore Series.

Marine (1955)

Marine (1955)

“I have no recollection at all of what was on my mind at the moment of creating this, nor any memory of the location of the landscape towards which this strange but real sea creature, whose identity I have also forgotten, directs its gaze. It feels as though I dreamed the whole conjunction and woke one morning, surprised to find it among my papers…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1962]

Marine is one of many images made between 1953 and 1966 based on plates from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a popular collection of photographs showing the sights of the world published by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. Because the publication ran through many mass market editions over the years, by the 1950s it appears to have been a cheap and versatile source of backgrounds for Holcombe’s early collages. With only a few exceptions, he is drawn to generic and anonymous imagery rather than the more distinctive kinds of photography that were available to him had he wished to use it.

The Kiss (1957)

An unsettling image made from an equally unsettling illustration in John Bull magazine, The Kiss is notable for its anticipation of what would later become the Ghost Pornography series around 1978, in the use of fabrics as a spatially disorientating device, and for its sly nod to Loplop, the bird-like Max Ernst alter-ego who appears in many of Ernst’s collages and paintings from the 1920s onwards. Holcombe signs the work ‘GH’, Gene Harrison, and his own use of a dual pseudonym (the other is ‘MH’, or Michael Harrison) suggests a self referential joke about such avatars may be at least part of the meaning of The Kiss. This may also be reading too much into what is, after all, mostly a genuinely disturbing image of dysfunctional romance.

Untitled (1957)

This untitled image is notable mainly as a very early precursor of a technique that would later be pursued in a more systematic way, in this case the Biological Camouflage series of 1973 – 78. It is also rather unusual in Holcombe’s work for utilising an unsigned watercolour (said by Elizabeth Booth to be a small mountain landscape by a Swiss amateur painter and mountaineer, Mattheus Theobald) rather than a generic tourist brochure photograph, as the base for its visual manipulation. The painting itself was purchased from a street market during a holiday in Swabia during 1956 so is likely to have been bought with the purpose seen here in mind.

Gothic Conversation III (The House in the Forest)

The Radiation Chamber (1958)
The House in the Forest (1964)
1964 Programme (1964)

In The House in the Forest, a fractured moon hangs among the dark trees of a wood in which a famous Workers’ Centre built in Moscow during the 1920s plays the part of the traditional folk-tale cottage. Whether Holcombe intends the juxtaposition of folktale and revolutionary architecture to be read as hopeful or satirical is difficult to tell. He is certainly known to have been conscious of the interesting work being made behind the Iron Curtain (he is thought to have met Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow in Paris during 1963, and dedicated the Krakow suite of 26 collages to her in 1964) and, for similar reasons, to have been acutely aware of the problems faced by the residents of these only nominally socialist states.

The Modernists (A Haunting) [1965]

The Modernists: A Haunting (1965)

The Modernists series is a loosely themed group of works created by Holcombe between 1965 (when the prefix is first used in a title) and around 1976, when the last works appear to have been made. Unlike more consistent series, like the Krakow portfolio, or the later Biological Camouflage and Ghost Pornography cycles, The Modernists images are linked only by their interest in the thematic subject matter and imagery of modernity itself, drawing heavily on design, fashion, architecture, film and other related material. The variousness of The Modernists also allowed many one-off devices and experiments to be included: A Haunting appears to sow the seed and anticipate a technique that would be much more systematically deployed in Ghost Pornography fifteen years after it was first made.

The Modernists: Idyll (1966)
The Modernists: A Lawn (1966)
The Modernists: Jack London’s Study (1966)

Holcombe’s levels of activity appear to have fluctuated over the years, though before 1981, when he abandoned collage altogether, there are no lengthy breaks in his pattern of working. The beginning of The Modernists cycle in 1965 does appear to have had a liberating effect on him, however, and his productivity between 1966 and 1968 is large and sustained, though unlike other sequences, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. A somewhat darker outcome of this visit was the explicitly anti-fascist portfolio of monochrome images known as Images Portugaises: Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional (1961) in which the blandly appealing propaganda scenes circulated internationally by Salazar’s government were overlaid with illustrations from manuals of surgery, skin disease and machinery.

Folklore Series: The Passageway (1966)
Folklore Series: Canada (1966)
Folklore Series: The London Transmission (1966)

Concurrent with The Modernists beginnings in 1965, Holcombe had also begun making work under the general title Folklore Series, a vehicle for dark, fairy-tale like and explicitly surrealist images of enigmatic scenes and presences. Where The Modernists series develops a kind of ambiguously Pop-inflected aesthetic clearly influenced by the burgeoning young consumer culture of the mid to late 1960s, Folklore Series tends to maintain a pre-war set of concerns, notably with the uncanny and ritualistic, and its images feel more like a subtle linear evolution of the concerns seen in Holcombe’s 1950s works than a new direction. In works like The Passageway, the emphasis is very much on disturbance.

The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967)
The Modernists: A Family Luncheon (1967)
The Modernists: Afternoon (1967)
The Modernists: The Lady of Shallot (1969)
The Modernists: Primavera (1970)

The Modernists series continued to dominate Holcombe’s output during the next few years, and some of these are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the archive. Diplodocus (1967) has become something of an emblematic Holcombe image, its constructed space inhabited by a dinosaur skeleton seemingly revealed to us by an archetypal sixties girl whose outfit matches the curtain she draws back. Intended meanings and symbolism are mostly fluid and enigmatic. Holcombe’s decision to construct a series of 78 Tarot images in 1971 was justified with an observation in a letter to Paolozzi of 1972: “The Tarot reader works not by supernatural means but by allusion, as users intuitively read oblique symbols for personally applicable meanings. I believe art operates in exactly the same way, becoming meaningful only by an intuitive process…” Much in Holcombe’s Tarot Series is echoed in The Modernists, where some symbols – often sexual or political – are clear, others left completely open-ended.

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series: Christ of the Termites (1969)

A more enigmatic response to the religious theme, here a photograph of a church interior is occupied by a termite mound, seemingly built in homage to a hovering mathematical shape. The lunar rise in the foreground of the image, strewn with thorns and roses, is an early, and therefore inaccurate, image of the moon’s surface. It’s noteworthy that several other Holcombe works of 1969 (see also: The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City) have lunar themes, probably inevitable at the high watermark of the Space Race, when after ten years of anticipation and competition with the Soviet programme, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission finally placed humans onto the lunar surface in July 1969, and (Holcombe noted later) “marked the end-point rather than a real beginning for all the promises of Space exploration our generation had been raised on”.

Folklore Series: The Innocents I (1972)
Folklore Series: Black Sun II (1973)
Folklore Series: On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975)

Many of Holcombe’s 1970s works, particularly those in the Folklore Series, develop an apocalyptic tone, often reminiscent of the scenarios found in the dystopian Science Fiction cinema of the same period. In Black Sun II (1973), Home (1975) and On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975), post-war domestic residences seem oblivious to darkening skies and hovering tumours, while The Innocents I (1972) shows a child, isolated in some bleak alien landscape. Elizabeth Booth has suggested that this image may be an oblique reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, first published in English in 1943, and probably read by Holcombe during his convalescence in Malaya in 1944.

The Modernists: The Wedding at Cana (1974)

A similar technique is used here to that seen in The Family Bible series, but both the source images (here, rather kitsch mid-1950s photographic tableaux of scenes from the life of Jesus instead of the more delicately coloured engravings of The Family Bible) and Holcombe’s treatments are less reverent and, at times, border on the kind of comedy later seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The Wedding at Cana presents the disciples as attending a bachelor party where the light of Jesus is the glowing shirt of a 1950s washing powder advert. Holcombe, in adding deliberately provocative and inappropriate items to the scene, seems to be partly venting against the puritanical Methodism of his boyhood, but also asking how, in an age when every festival and ritual in the Christian calendar has become an opportunity for consumerism, anyone could seriously object to a collage that simply shows what these events now look like in the homes of those most likely to be offended.

Ghost Pornography: Gilt (1978)

This is the earliest image in the final (known) cycle of Holcombe’s active period, Ghost Pornography, which (a couple of precedents like 1965’s The Modernists: A Haunting aside) he began in 1978 and finally abandoned, so far as we can tell, around 1981, along with his thirty year collage-making activity in its entirety. The reason for his abandonment of this life-long habit of collage-making isn’t known, though Booth believes a combination of depression after 1979, partly based in the wider political situation, increased workload in his final decade before retirement in Leeds, and also, more hopefully, a simple feeling of completion, may all have been factors. Booth also notes that he did continue to make collages on a more occasional basis, mostly as gifts for friends and correspondents, but no longer followed his routine of working at his desk in the spare bedroom for an hour or two most evenings after work. It seems that between around 1981 and 1987 he also began to sort the material he’d been making, securing and framing pieces that may otherwise have suffered damage, but put everything into storage on his move to Exeter in 1988. It was this only partially ordered archive that Booth inherited in 2003 and from which these works have been selected.

Performing the Curtain Rituals I – IX (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors. Holcombe’s purpose, according to a letter written to Eduardo Paolozzi in 1966, was “…to pursue a feeling that once these patronised ‘native’ figures were cut from their original desert and jungle contexts and relocated in modern European interiors, they became both incongruous and rather more like ourselves: the peculiarities of our own customs seem to be exposed. A Pere Ubu-like figure inhabits an ordinary living room; a Zulu warrior poses in front of orange curtains beside an English Nurse, and so on. In the latter, the nurse’s ritual costume does not contrast with but echoes the warrior’s: her clipboard is a shield, her breastplate and utterly impractical head-dress make no more or less sense than his spear, shield and loincloth do. That half the world now aspires to these bizarre interiors only heightens this disjunction between tradition and modernity and the tensions and symbiosis that blur them. I am also in love with the colour balance these combinations of printed materials produce when they are all viewed together…”

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Jesus in Martha's House] (1967) (800x682)

ROOM TWO (The Family Bible):

The Family Bible (1967) [shown as projections]

These works exist only as loose portfolio pages, and are made on the actual plates of a Victorian bible. Because of this, they are extremely delicate and being shown here in projected rather than physical form, to aid their conservation. The series itself is one of the most explicit reflections of Holcombe’s Methodist upbringing. Notable scenes from the Old and New Testaments are brought up to date in a variety of dryly ironic ways: Moses raises his arms before a vision of the El-Al airline’s hyper-modernist office signage or descends from the Mount bearing not Ten Commandments but two brightly coloured Cream Sodas. The men wringing Joseph’s Garments in their hands appear to be polishing silver with a branded product. Joseph’s dream, related to his brethren, is the apparition of a beautiful woman stepping from a bathtub, while a dinosaur strolls past The Fall of Man, oblivious to Adam and Eve’s misfortunes. While often satirical in tone, The Family Bible series also contains more mysterious images: in The Entombment an image of Christ’s body being laid to rest is itself entombed under painted concrete, while Jesus in Martha’s House shows the blue gown of a kneeling woman dissolved into a cloud of blue hyacinth petals.

The Modernists - The Modern Interior I (1967)


The Modern Interior I (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same images, reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making these two pieces. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s photo-silkscreens, insofar as Holcombe painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

Biological Camouflage: Renaissance II (1978)ROOM THREE (Renaissance):

Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance II (1978)

Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance III (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance IV (1978)

Most of Holcombe’s various Biological Camouflage series add cellular or other microscope images to landscape photographs, seeking “spatial displacements and disruptions of landscape and architecture, a kind of Land Art on paper. Or maybe it was just about noticing how perfectly cellular patterns blend into and unsettle generic scenes (sourced from tourist guides) using a very simple formula…”, as he wrote to Cy Albertine in 1984. The ‘simple formula’ was that each collage would impose only one modification to its background, presented as a kind of opened hatch within the frame (no diagonals or tilts of the added rectangle or square image are permitted) and somehow ‘matched’, camouflage-style, to the space it modifies. In this smaller group, however, the effect is very different. The grounding images are paintings – four Italian Renaissance frescoes and a French Renaissance tapestry and fresco – while the biological elements are both multiple, shaped and manipulated more elaborately within the frames. Even so, the unsettling effect remains comparable to the many photographic Biological Camouflage series to which this variant is a kind of marginalia.

The Modernists: The Birth of English Modernism (1965)

The earliest known work in The Modernists series, this strange image merges an opium den with molecular forms, spun from the vaguely surprised hands of an English labourer. It  presents a kind of imaginary source moment for what now, in hindsight, resembles the most significant cultural shift in Europe since the Renaissance itself.

The Modernists - The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

ANTENNA (Late Works):

The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

Holcombe had first met Richard Hamilton as a fellow student at the Slade in 1948 and this homage is built around various elements associated with Hamilton’s work, all set on the background of a poster showing the members of Roxy Music, a band famously shaped by Hamilton’s influence during his time in Newcastle. Here almost completely obscured by devices like the male body-builder from Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, relaxing after his exertions of the 1950s, a beaker of unidentified white liquid from a Science Fiction B-Movie and polished Brancusi-like military projectiles, the members of Roxy Music array themselves around a run-down pool hall while Hamilton’s own implied presence is in the position occupied by the viewer, entering the scene like a guest at some spatially and temporally disjointed party.

Immersion I: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion II: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion III: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion IV: The Surgeons (1971)
Study for Immersion (1970)

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Studies for ‘The Consumer’ (undated, c.1956 – 61)

A row of portraits of a child, each slightly different, are overlaid with consumer products, cut from magazine advertisements of the mid 1950s, and indirectly anticipate the Immersions series of 1970 – 71, though no direct link is made in Holcombe’s correspondence or journals. If the specific work for which these studies were made survives it has not yet been found, and no completed work titled The Consumer is catalogued in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: Resetting the Clock to Another Incorrect Time (1969)
The Modernists: Liberty Leading The People (1968)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated images in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: The Modern Interior II (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same photographic images, as reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making two versions of this piece. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s use of photo-silkscreen, insofar as Holcombe here painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

The Modernists: ‘…And Now I Unleash the Power of Pure Thought…’ (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series, and such related images as ‘And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought’, pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

California: A Study in Yellow (1974)

A fairly simple 1970s update of the device often used by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by which the subject matter of a figurative painting is de-emphasised in order to highlight more formal and abstract properties. In Holcombe’s version, it is unclear whether he intends the same effect to be experienced, or is more obliquely satirising aspects of formalism in art by producing an image that announces its own superficiality with the word ‘GLOSS’ hovering inside the frame on a somewhat exotic looking paint can. There may be a self-deprecating humour at work in that, by 1974, Holcombe was already making his own formally constrained Biological Camouflage images, which adhere to very strict and near-minimalist compositional rules.

THE READING ROOM (Miscellany):

The Reading Room (1951)

One of a relatively small group of surviving early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued.

Constellation: Coffee Lounge (1955)
Constellation: Shellac I & II (1955)
Constellation: Pump & Shellac III (1955)

Eduardo Paolozzi recalls a number of these small, square images being displayed “scattered across a wall with drawing pins, approximating the pattern of a particular star formation, possibly Orion or The Great Bear, but I can’t exactly remember. Holcombe had an idea that he might photograph and develop the images as negatives and present them in tiny light-boxes inside a darkened room, but nothing ever came of the idea to my knowledge”. The five images framed here are the sole remaining fragments of this unrealised project.

Study for ‘Performing the Curtain Rituals’ (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series in Holcombe’s mid-sixties output, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors.

Comics Series I: The Birth of the Hero (1970)
Comics Series II: Confrontation on the Steps (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series and such related images as The Modernists: And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought (1970), pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City (1969)
The Modernists: Our Price to You, Including Postage & Packaging! (1969)
The Modernists: The Last Supper (1974)
The Modernists: Sof-Set by Max Factor (1966)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the Holcombe archive.

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

A Very Unreliable Tour of Primary (Nov 30)

30 Nov

This 30 minute ‘fake tour’ of the Grade II listed Primary building was written quickly, delivered off the cuff, and was intent on little more than being vaguely entertaining and drawing the many artworks around the various parts of the old school to participants’ attention. It is part of Primary is Open 2013, a three day programme of open studios, events, exhibitions and performances that still has one day to run, on Sunday December 1. See the link for details:

Primary (Exterior View)

Primary (Exterior View)

Welcome to this short tour of the Primary building, in which almost everything you will hear is false. But stay alert, as a very few things might turn out to be true. We’ll begin with the display you can see here in Project Space One of work from all the artists now based at this former school.

Mik Godley (Hanebu in America)

Mik Godley (Hanebu in America)

As you can see, Mik Godley has painted an image from an old photograph, now lost, of one of the mysterious aircraft reputedly captured in Lenton during World War Two, and brought here for study in 1943. We aren’t sure of the exact details, but believe that the school’s science teachers – particularly Mr Jonathan Wright, of whom little is known apart from the fact that everyone who encountered him commented on the green corduroy suit he wore long before such garments became fashionable – worked with the children on dismantling the gyroscopes and other mechanisms found inside the technologically advanced craft, which had been involved in a bombing raid on the old Player’s factory, and forwarding their findings to the MoD. It was disassembled in the playground outside and slowly pieced together again in this very room, where it made – we’re told – for a very stimulating science project that summer.

Basement (Image May Be Incorrect)

Basement (Image May Be Incorrect)

It is worth taking a brief look at the basement. We will not spend long here: all I can tell you is that this cellar may once have been connected to the caves network under the city, and is reputedly the haunt of a red-haired lady in an elaborate dress who is predicted to appear here on the first of December, between the hours of around five and eight pm. Nothing more is known about this so-called ‘red lady’, but I believe a group are gathering here tomorrow to await her appearance and you are all welcome to join them.

Primary Project Space One Display

Primary Project Space One Display

As we return to Project Space One, it is clear that not everything in the hang here is quite as it seems. You may note that statements made by the Primary staff suggest there is at least one work by each of the artists based here, but this is only partly true. At least three artists have mysteriously disappeared since the building opened, and while Andy Lock’s whereabouts are not known, I met Matt Hawthorn in a pub over by Mansfield Road only recently, so can confirm that he has fled to Yorkshire for reasons he won’t discuss: he is not buried in the school grounds as some rumours in circulation have suggested. But the mystery of Frank Kent’s disappearance remains unsolved. Two months ago we were told he had “gone to take up a place at the Royal Academy”, but this news followed a prolonged and increasingly virulent dispute with Mik Godley and Niki Russell over the exact shade of grey that the wall you see here should be painted. As the disputes escalated, it seemed that only once Kent had vanished was the shade you now see chosen. Things like this can be troublesome and dangerous in any group situation, always threatening to erupt in some new round of reprisals and vendettas. Most of us avoid getting involved in the violent arguments that regularly erupt over paints and tools and get on with our work as best we can.

Michael Pinchbeck - The Drawing Board [Photo by Simon Withers]

Michael Pinchbeck – The Drawing Board [Photo by Simon Withers]

We’ll now go to the second Project Space upstairs. On the stairs, note that Mr Michael Pinchbeck’s plea for help, written in chalk the night he vanished, a few days ago, remains visible. We are trying to crack the code he’s using to cry for assistance and still have hopes he might safely return. If you wish to take a few moments to study the text, or notice anything that might assist us in our efforts to find him, please talk to someone. Time may now be short.

Suspiria (aka Project Space Two)

Suspiria (aka Project Space Two)

As we enter Project Space Two, you will observe that it was once a dance school. Now, I don’t know how many of you have seen Dario Argento’s giallo classic, Suspiria, a baroque Italian horror film set in a dance academy isolated deep inside a mysterious forest?  A little known fact is that much of the footage in which the students rehearse their stretches and pirouettes under the stern gaze of the powerful witches who murder anyone who proves too curious or disobedient were filmed in this very room, now stripped down from the sumptuous excesses seen in Argento’s film to this rather plainer set-up but still, I believe, more or less as it was. It’s thought that the filming of Suspiria here may have unsettled the ghosts and spirits that had formerly been quiet and this might help to explain the prevalence of unexplained incidents that have since taken place within these walls.

Blue Building Interior [Photo by Niki Russell]

Blue Building Interior [Photo by Niki Russell]

We don’t know if this is true or not, of course, but if we look out of the windows and survey the playground we can see the abandoned Blue Building opposite. Disturbances there have coincided with Primary Open Studios events in both the years we’ve been active: last year, a pumpkin-headed figure appeared to perform rituals there, trapping an audience inside for six hours before they were (thankfully) safely released. Last night, ghostly figures were seen moving about inside. If anyone knows what these apparitions might mean, do talk to one of Primary’s staff in confidence. Exorcisms may be possible as part of the Studio Development Programme.

Speaking in Tongues by Simon Withers

Speaking in Tongues by Simon Withers

Coming back downstairs, you will notice these ritual ceramic stones made by resident artist Simon Withers dotted around the building. Withers explained that he has placed the ‘stones’ onto key points – the buildings own ‘ley-lines’ – where they act as control points for the chaotic energies all around us. They are also, Withers once confided, not real works of his own at all – that is just a pretext. They are actually Hydra’s teeth, bought from a very distant descendent of Jason of Argo, who you may know for his adventures in pursuit of the Golden Fleece in ancient times – his family now live on an estate in New Basford and like to keep a low profile, it seems – and should some final apocalypse occur, then the display cases can be broken (like fire alarms) and the teeth thrown to the playground. Each fragment when they shatter becomes an armed skeleton capable of fighting any undead or spectral hordes that may appear, under the command of a head of Zardoz. I don’t know if Mr Withers is prepared to discuss these things or not, but you may find him about the building, disguised as a gardener or photographer, measuring the energies of the  old school for reasons best known to himself.

Tent by Louisa Chambers (2013)

Tent by Louisa Chambers (2013)

The board of Primary tells us that these mysteries are being investigated: apparently only the other day, the school was visited by a painted VW camper van called the Mystery Mobile, and two women, Daphne and Velma, and their male and canine accomplices, Fred, Shaggy and Scooby, have built this outpost on the Mezzanine with the aid of Craig Fisher as a base for their explorations of the mysteries of the building. They have told us that they believe the old caretaker may be implicated: his house is now a gallery, but his former secret closet – known as Mrs Ricks’ Cupboard – remains full of mysterious, slightly occult drawings, credited to Louisa Chambers – and the group, known as ‘Mystery Incorporated’, believe the caretaker, Mr Hopgood, may still be living on the premises, trying to frighten away the artists and public who are now here.

Liam Aitken's Portal at Caretaker's House

Liam Aitken’s Portal at Caretaker’s House

He may, of course, be wearing a mask that makes him look like one of us – indeed he may very well be one of us – so do keep your eyes open, in case his mask slips and we are finally able to expose him. In the meantime, I can only direct you to the signs of his continued presence… Before you go on to search this caretaker’s house, and just to add a final safety note, please be aware that the portal in Liam Aitken’s room inside this house is thought to require some particular care as you pass. Last night three people appear to have fallen into it and their voices have been heard this morning inside Michelle Arieu’s porcelain pyramid downstairs, begging for release from their entrapment.

Michelle Arieu's Pyramid at Caretaker's House

Michelle Arieu’s Pyramid at Caretaker’s House

You may also observe that Simon Withers has clearly been performing rituals in the room next to Arieu’s in an effort to free them. So do take care as you explore, but be assured that Mystery Incorporated have told us all this will soon be solved…in the meantime, thank you for your attention on this brief tour and do enjoy the rest of your day’s exploration of the building.

Simon Withers at Caretaker's House [Photo by Simon Withers]

Simon Withers at Caretaker’s House [Photo by Simon Withers]

Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture With Illustrations (2013)

16 Nov

Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture with Illustrations

This is the text version of a ‘fictional lecture’ delivered at Nottingham Contemporary’s symposium Shimmering, Shining, Vomiting, Glitter: The Poetics and Politics of Disgust on November 14th 2013, part of the public programme around the Asco exhibition No Movies. Video from the live stream of the presentation can be found here.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that approximately 60% of the material used to support the case I am about to make is fictional. Then again, since the case I intend to make is for ambiguity, fluidity and the blurring of accepted categories – particularly, in this case, our tendency, in ‘objective’ encounters, to find beauty in material we might otherwise have been conditioned to find disgusting or repellent – perhaps it’s appropriate that the ground on which the case for confusion and ambiguity has been built is itself, like those substances we tend to find repellent (vomit, blood, flesh, decay) extremely slippery. The notion of disgust itself often seems linked to ambiguous substances and spaces where mutations and slippages happen, where the borders separating the inside and outside of bodies blur, where the literal ‘bad taste’ of kitsch asserts itself in some context where it doesn’t fit: is it ‘in bad taste’ to fabricate evidence and draw fictional conclusions? Perhaps this paper’s form could provoke disgust as well as provide a framework for a discussion of its ambiguities.

Robert Holcombe: Film Strip – Reconstruction Of A Work On Paper (1966)

Robert Holcombe: Film Strip – Reconstruction Of A Work On Paper (1966)

To establish the ground rules of this talk, I’d like to show a short film in which it seems the unsettling inhabits the hypnotic and the abject conceals itself inside the appealing: Robert Holcombe’s Film Strip (1966). The original version of this exists only as a one-off book work, in the form of a concertina storyboard, which was speculatively reconstructed with permission from his estate in the summer of 2012, an idea largely justified by Holcombe’s notes outlining an intention “that this collage book might already be, or could one day become, a film of some sort…something haunting, formally precise, but entirely random in its patterning” [Holcombe: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, September 1967]. If it achieves nothing else today, Film Strip should at least help us to enter the mood of slight unreality and blatant artifice appropriate for the paper that follows and is, in its own way, a small Asco-style ‘No Movie’ of its own.

“Everything is all mixed up, the situation … ambiguous” [Alina Szapocznikow, 1972]

“Everything is all mixed up, the situation … ambiguous” [Alina Szapocznikow, 1972]

But that’s by the way. We begin our real discussion with a review of the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow’s MoMA retrospective earlier this year, in which one writer, Yevgeniya Traps, points out that that during her training in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the war – a war in which she had survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and internment in three concentration camps, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz – Szapocznikow did not respond to her experiences in the way we might expect, with self-conscious high-humanitarian seriousness and solemnity, but through a darkly playful and at times Pop-like lens: insofar as it is autobiographical in any conventionally literal or direct sense, which in her case is simultaneously inevitable and doubtful, Szapocznikow’s work refracts her wartime experience, and the Holocaust itself, through a distorting mirror, rendering her own near-miraculous continued existence as a species of unsettling hallucination.

Alina Szapocznikow: Tumours Personified, 1971)

Alina Szapocznikow: Tumours Personified, 1971)

“[Szapocznikow] brought an unabashedly feminine sensibility, coupled with a hard-won contempt for traditional pieties”, writes Traps. “[Hers is] the vision of one who has witnessed the dismantling of the world and improbably lived to tell of it. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five, Szapocznikow’s response to the atrocities she had lived through seems to have been “So it goes.” Like Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and who concluded that writing an anti-war novel would be not unlike writing a book against glaciers, she seems to have realized that, even without wars, without human cruelty, “there would still be plain old death.” Such knowledge was, as it tends to be, hard won: Szapocznikow was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and died, at the age of forty-seven, from breast cancer. The tuberculosis perhaps helps explain the artist’s apparent obsession with the consumption of bodies, as does the cancer. One of Szapocznikow’s most striking pieces is Tumeurs Personnifiées (Tumors Personified), made in 1971, using polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, and gauze: a series of faces laid out on the gallery floor, suggesting decapitated heads, washed up on some seashore like small dead creatures…” [Traps, The Paris Review, January 2013]

Alina Szapocznikow with Grands Ventres (1968)

Alina Szapocznikow with Grands Ventres (1968)

Szapocznikow’s works have tended, when they were ‘placed’ at all, to be discussed in relation to those of such American artists as Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, but while there are certainly shared concerns, materials and techniques with such artists (and some temperamental similarities to others, not least Paul Thek, George Segal and Ed Keinholz), the question of actual influence in either direction is (as always) fraught and complex. Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body, in particular, seems in her case a highly specific, if not at all dogmatic, anti-fascist gesture: as the Marquis de Sade understood perfectly, the sensibility that produces fascism is fundamentally rooted in attempts to eradicate the ‘soft’ body from its armour, to erase difference, to impose abstractions on the mess of actual bodies. Fascist mentalities seek to cleanse the world and people it with uniforms filled with marble and machinery instead of actual flesh and organs, since the vulnerabilities and unpredictabilities of human presence have been made philosophically, politically and viscerally intolerable. Szapocznikow’s response to this cleansing tendency invites very particular responses, notably that instinctive but extremely contradictory convulsion that occurs in human perception when an image of startling visual beauty – perhaps something suggestive of Islamic tile patterns or a plant-form, a nebula or stone, a sexual trigger, a breast or vagina or some juicy, edible fruit – suddenly reveals its true identity on second glance: what we see is now a fungal growth, a tumour, a fold of cut skin, a cluster of cancer cells or an excised liver. The response turns abruptly from desire to disgust: a muscular contraction, an affective revulsion in which the ghost of that initial desire disturbingly remains.

“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all” [Andre Breton, Nadja, 1928]

“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all” [Andre Breton, Nadja, 1928]

It’s on the ground of a shared interest in the literally ‘convulsive’ physical and psychological response that an image or object of this ambiguous kind might trigger – the ‘convulsive beauty’ that Breton’s 1928 text, Nadja, declares an archetypal surrealist effect – that it seems Alina Szapocznikow may, or may not, have entered into a brief but significant dialogue with the entirely fictional British artist Robert Dennis Holcombe in Paris sometime during 1963. Robert Holcombe, born in Leeds in 1923, and so only three years older than Szapocznikow herself, had served and was injured in Malaya during the war and in 1948 gone on to study printmaking at the Slade in London alongside contemporaries like Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and other early architects of the Independent Group. Yet instead of pursuing a career in art, or assuming any public visibility during his lifetime, he maintained these contacts at a distance after returning to Leeds in 1955 to work in the city’s municipal planning office while making his own collage works as a mostly private activity.

Robert Holcombe: The Passageway (1966)

Robert Holcombe: The Passageway (1966)

In works like Holcombe’s The Passageway (1966) we can see immediately how close some of his concerns were to Szapocznikow’s during this period, despite the very different materials and methods used. The fragmented and disordered body, the convergence in one image of attraction and revulsion, some inheritance, conscious or otherwise, from the formula for ‘convulsive beauty’ described by Andre Breton in 1928, all are present and foregrounded in Holcombe. As with an line like Angela Carter’s “his wedding gift, clasped round my throat…a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat…” the impact of an image like The Passageway is crucially dependent on a double-take: a simultaneity of perspectives that strikes when we see the image. The body is well-proportioned and classically beautiful, but the skin is diseased. The pubic hair is concealed, in accordance with academic decorum, but with a fig-leaf of fertile spawn. A simple response appears to have been made deliberately impossible.

Robert Holcombe: Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional] (1961)

Robert Holcombe: Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional] (1961)

While The Passageway post-dates Holcombe’s possible meeting with Szapocznikow, and may well have been influenced by his encounter with her work a few years earlier, these concerns do appear in his output earlier and independently, albeit in very different forms to those manifested by Szapocznikow. In 1961 Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional], an explicitly anti-fascist portfolio, was constructed from a book of propaganda images published to sell Salazar’s Portugal to the world: Holcombe had acquired the book on a visit to Lisbon in 1960 as part of a delegation sent to view and study the construction techniques used for system built public housing.

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

In relation to a possible link with Szapocznikow, we know that Holcombe was in Paris at some point during the winter of 1963, as part of a small team sent on a similar architectural research trip to visit new buildings on the city’s outskirts. Because of this, we also know that he was in Paris at a point in time when Szapocznikow maintained a studio near the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, a studio where she remained until her move to a house on Rue Victor Hugo in 1964, so it’s perfectly possible for a meeting of some kind to have taken place. What isn’t clear is how Holcombe’s decision to specifically dedicate a series of 26 images, Krakow (1964), to Alina Szapocznikow on his return to Leeds came about.

Alina Szapocznikow: Dessert V (1971)

Alina Szapocznikow: Dessert V (1971)

It seems most likely that he met Szapocznikow herself, and perhaps visited her studio, as there are no records of her taking part in public exhibitions in Paris or elsewhere during Holcombe’s time in the city, and the works that his series references were not, at that stage, featured in any periodicals as reproductions that could otherwise have been available prior to or during 1964. The monochrome photographs used as background for the 26 images comprising the series also show locations in and around Krakow, often places linked to local legends, ghost stories and uncanny tales, so the Polish material and very clear allusions to Szapocznikow’s sculptural work suggest a very conscious kind of homage was being undertaken. The question of why Holcombe made it, and how he came to at least appear to know of work by Szapocznikow that had yet to be publicly seen, may never be fully explained.

Robert Holcombe: Krakow - Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

The possibility of an undocumented meeting would be the most likely explanation but beyond the internal evidence of Holcombe’s own Krakow series and the speculation it encourages, no account of Holcombe’s activity during his 1963 visit to Paris, beyond the basic work itinerary of site visits and municipal meetings, has yet surfaced to cast any further light on the origins of this particular series, or indeed any other influence Szapocznikow may have had on his work during the 1960s and 70s. Despite these uncertainties, there’s an undeniable logic to Holcombe’s interest in the assemblage methods and surreal and anatomical themes that surface in Szapocznikow’s works even more often than they do in his own typical output: a temperamental affinity seems very likely to have been quickly established in any circumstances which might have led to a 1963 meeting between the two.

Robert Holcombe: Garden (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Garden (1953)

In this light, it may be worth reconsidering some examples of Holcombe’s 1950s and early 1960s work in the light of both Szapocznikow’s aesthetic sensibility and Breton’s concept of ‘convulsive beauty’. Perhaps these might be considered useful keys to understanding both the nature of the shifts in his own work between and the middle and later 1960s and the general shift in visual culture that took place, in England, at least, under banners usually somewhat reductively labelled ‘Pop’ or ‘Social Realism’. In a journal entry, written just the year before his visit to Paris he was already considering ideas that might almost have been written by Szapocznikow herself, suggesting a shared aesthetic and mutual fascination with material liable to produce contradictory (and ‘convulsive’) responses: “I have been thinking increasingly about what we consider with disgust; how such things seem if we can only forget what they are. From the jewel-boxes of diseased cells under microscopes and the soft furs of black mould on decayed meat, to the ripe blood-fruit of internal organs and the exotic fauna of physical decomposition, there is beauty in all those things from which we instinctively recoil…” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Journal,, 1962]

Robert Holcombe: Feast (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Feast (1953)

Like Alina Szapocznikow in the Polish context, Holcombe’s work at this point seems to have become increasingly politicised but resists obvious routes of social protest and activism while insisting on absurdity and humour, albeit of a markedly dark variety on both counts. Even in works of the 1950s like Garden (1953), in which a sliced-open internal organ is framed as fantastical garden seemingly filled with stars and microbial plants, or Feast (1953), which places a digestive tract into a Buckingham Palace stateroom to mark the Coronation, these interests are present in embryonic form. As he wrote in 1962, making explicit the political point he may have intended the otherwise uncanny or surreal image of Feast to communicate during the coronation year of 1953: “If the State or Nation is a body, as many insist, then the place where all its wealth and produce ends up after the other organs have done their work should not be considered the head, as is commonly suggested, but the arse…” [Holcombe: Unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, August 1962]

Robert Holcombe: Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Robert Holcombe: Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

As de Sade wrote in 120 Days of Sodom, almost two centuries earlier, “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace…”. It is not so much that, as Angela Carter’s explicitly Sadeian narrator says in her 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann, “everything it is possible to imagine can also exist” but that, as Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body and embrace of fluidity, slippage, softness, mutation and vulnerability tells us, that “everything that exists is open to imaginative transformation”.

Alina Szapocznikow: Lampe IV (1970)

Alina Szapocznikow: Lampe IV (1970)

Isn’t this exactly what Szapocznikow’s Personified Tumours do, embracing even her own lethal illness in pursuit of an imaginative immersion in the transformed matter of the world? And if Szapocznikow immerses herself in the uncomfortable pleasures and unpredictabilities of real bodies, Holcombe, around the same moment, is seeking visual analogues for a sense of entrapment (and constructing small portals of escape) from our wider immersion in a consumer culture whose boundaries, even in the later 1960s, were felt to be tightening, holding the emergent consumer somewhere between a new plenty and too-much, a dream and a nightmare, convulsive beauty and convulsive disgust. That both artists draw on these convulsive strategies, where boundaries implode, categories shift, the world undergoes mutations and our own responses slip easily between glimpses of beauty and visceral recoils from bad taste, only heightens a sense of frustration that any actual connections between them remain highly tenuous and entirely undocumented.